On his first trip to Asia as defense secretary, Leon Panetta intends to stress a U.S. commitment to strengthening ties with key allies and partner countries while keeping a wary eye on China's military buildup.
Panetta was embarking Friday on a weeklong tour, with stops in Indonesia, Japan and Korea. In addition to meetings with government officials, he planned to hold town hall-style sessions with U.S. troops in Japan and Korea, where land, air and naval bases form the core of the U.S. military presence in Asia.
Panetta's trip comes amid a broad effort by the Obama administration to shift more of its national security focus toward Asia. Now that the Iraq war is ending and the administration has set 2014 as the target date for completing its combat mission in Afghanistan, the White House wants to attend more closely to relationships and rivalries in the Asia-Pacific region, where fears of China are on the rise.
President Barack Obama himself plans to visit Bali in November to attend an East Asia summit meeting, following a visit to Australia. He also will host a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Hawaii in November.
In Indonesia, the first stop of his week-long Asia tour, Panetta planned to attend a meeting of defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The talks will be held on Bali, the resort island where a terrorist bombing in 2002 killed 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.
Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation, has been hit by a string of terrorist attacks since then.
Last year, the United States resumed cooperation with Indonesia's special forces more than a decade after ties were severed over alleged human rights abuses by members of the special forces, known as Kopassus. Panetta on his visit is expected to discuss prospects for further increasing cooperation.
Washington severed all ties with the Indonesian military in 1999 after troops rampaged through East Timor when it voted to secede from Indonesia. The U.S. lifted that overall ban in 2005 but kept its restrictions against the Kopassus.
International rights groups have said members of Kopassus were linked to the disappearance of student activists in 1997 and 1998 and were never held accountable.
In Tokyo, Panetta planned to meet with senior Japanese government officials to discuss a range of defense issues, including a long-stalled plan to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to a less-crowded area of the island. Okinawan opposition to even a more dispersed Marine presence has prevented the U.S. from proceeding with plans to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Panetta also is expected to discuss arms sales with Japan. The Japanese had wanted to buy the new U.S. stealth fighter, the F-22, but Congress has banned export sales of that aircraft. Japan remains interested in either the Lockheed F-35 fighter or Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, and a decision is expected soon.
Washington is Tokyo's main ally. Roughly 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan. Japan's main concerns are China and Russia — with whom it has longstanding territorial disputes — along with the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles.
China, whose military has been growing more capable and assertive in the region, recently rolled out its next-generation stealth fighter, the much-touted Chengdu J-20. Though that fighter may be years away from actual operations, it is seen as a rival to the F-22 and far superior to what Japan now has.
Robert Gates, who preceded Panetta as Pentagon chief, used his final Asia trip, in January, to appeal to Japan for help in heading off a military crisis with North Korea. Gates also sought to ease U.S. pressure on Japan over the Futenma issue, which has been a thorn in U.S.-Japan relations for more than a decade.
Panetta is not expected to veer from the Asia course set by Gates, although he has not spoken extensively about his thinking on that region. In a speech Oct. 12, Panetta said, without mentioning China by name, of his concern that "rising powers" are rapidly modernizing their militaries and investing in capabilities to "deny our forces freedom of movement in vital regions such as the Asia-Pacific area."
Japan and South Korea are both treaty allies of the U.S. and are at the center of U.S. security policy in the region.
This is Panetta's third overseas trip since taking office July 1. He visited Iraq and Afghanistan that month, and earlier this month he traveled to Egypt, Israel and Italy and attended a NATO meeting in Brussels.